In limestone country: Clints Crags

This blogpost is part of my ‘limestone lockdown’ project. For an Introduction to the project, and a guide to the growing list of related posts, see Limestone in the Lake District: an Introduction – and the ‘categories’ list in the right-hand bar.

The village where I live is at the foot of a limestone plateau on the north-west edge of the Lake District. It is one of a line of low-lying villages where springs arise to feed becks that flow out onto the Solway Plain. When there is a lot of rain, our own beck rises quickly and the water from the tap in the yard – fed from a Victorian cistern that itself is filled by a spring – starts to run white and cloudy with sediment. Walk up the lane onto the hill behind the house and the drystone walls change subtly in colour and shape, from mossy pale-red sandstone to lichen-decorated limestone. In the fields that are grazed by cattle and sheep the limestone outcrops in surprising places and the pasture is pocked with grass-filled sink-holes, dolines.

There are several ways to reach Clints Crags, my local limestone pavement, but the most interesting route in terms of seeing the typical scenery of karst or ‘limestone country’ is up a narrow, walled-in track, where the stones underfoot are smoothed white and slippery by the passage of farmers’ pick-ups and herded sheep. At first the walling looks haphazard, the stones flat but craggy-edged and their surfaces rough and pitted, dappled with mosses and patches of white lichen that teasingly mimic the outlines of fossil brachiopods. Nearer the Crags, rounder, blockier stones have been incorporated and the row of angled stones atop the wall is neater and intact.

It is January, and the frost hangs on in the shade and in the sink-holes. The outlines of the few trees are skeletal – tangled, scrubby hawthorns contrasting with the straight trunks and limbs of ash. The track deteriorates to rushy bog that crackles with sheets of ice which are too thin to support my weight, and I climb over a rusty metal gate to enter the fields that rise gently to a line of stunted trees that are silhouetted on the skyline. The grass is close-cropped and sere, with little substance for the sheep to graze, even though their colourful backsides show they have been tupped and are in lamb. Lines of drystone walls, perforated with tumbled stones, mark boundaries that no longer serve as barriers; the sheep roam at will, unbothered by my presence. I head uphill towards the flat skyline, clambering over stones fallen from a wall that is a couple of metres high. Large cow-pats are crusty and decaying, picked over by crows and invertebrates: the cattle are still indoors.

Upwards, avoiding crumbling rocky outcrops, towards the cluster of trees – and here is the limestone pavement that forms that horizontal skyline. Blocks – clints – are intersected by the channels of the grikes, and form varied patterns: rectangles and squares, in places smooth-surfaced, in others hollowed and channelled. At Clints Crags much of the pavement surface is, surprisingly, coated with mosses and, despite the grazing pressure, hawthorns, ash and elder have grown several metres tall. Fallen timber has been drilled by woodpeckers, and is crumbly with decay. Traces of summer plants remain in the grikes – scarred brown fronds of Hart’s-tongue Fern, scarlet leaves of Herb Robert.

The view to the North across the just-visible ribbon of the Solway Firth is of Scotland, marked by the familiar granite hulk of Criffel. There is snow on far-distant Scottish hills – Merrick in Galloway, and around Beattock where the turbines of the huge Clyde Valley windfarm glitter. To the South is the sheen of Bassenthwaite Lake, enclosed by the multicoloured patchworks of conifer forest, dead bracken, and the grazed hillsides of the fells – Ullock Pike and Skiddaw, places of dark slippery slatey screes, and unfriendly rock underfoot. The Dodds form a distant line and, hidden by the hills of the ‘Coledale Round’, are the fells of the Borrowdale volcanics, beyond which is granite country. These are the rock types that define the Lake District in people’s minds: that there is also limestone often comes as a surprise.

Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake

Yet limestone forms a semicircle from the West near St Bees, through the Caldbeck Fells in the North and down to Shap in the East; patches then reach South past Kendal, Grange and Arnside, and around to Millom. The geological history of the origin, the over-laying and then the re-emergence of the limestone strata is complicated, but is explained clearly and diagramatically in Peter Wilson’s book Lake District mountain landforms [1]. All we need to know here is that the limey muds and skeletons of invertebrate animals were deposited and lithified during the Carboniferous period between 360-300 million years ago; towards the end of that period the limestone was covered by different sediments that became sandstones, shale and coal. Later still, between 300-200 million years ago, the sediment that became the red Permo-Triassic sandstones so characteristic of the St Bees’ and Penrith areas was laid down. What followed then was a period of uplift, and erosion of the overlying sandstones, which revealed the central dome-like core of the older rocks – the Lake District – surrounded by the bands of younger limestone. Another important factor was the action of various periods of glaciation during the Quaternary period, from about 2.5 million years ago, when glaciers buried, then scraped across the surface of the Lake District and its limestone edges, etching the landscape, scouring and scarring the surface, leaving clues to their passing.

Millom poet Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) writes, in his poem The Seven Rocks, [2] how ‘Flinty clints are scraped bone-bare’, to be further eroded and sculpted by acidic rain. The glaciers, too, picked up rocks from other areas during their passage across the land and dropped them here and there, out of geological sequence and often far from their point of origin. These boulders, referred to as ‘erratics’ as though they themselves have wandered across the landscape, can be found on the Solway shore (where the largest have long had their own names, such as Maston and Archie and Pintle, see Chapter 8 in The Fresh and the Salt) and deposited on or at the edges of limestone pavements.

Close to the broken drystone wall that no longer fences Clints Crags, a pinkish boulder has been smoothed by the sheep who have used it as a scratching-stone. Nearby, a small lump of dark rock possibly of the ‘Borrowdale Volcanics’ series is embedded in a grike.

Although there are farms and other habitations in view, the limestone pavement at Clints Crags feels oddly remote and unvisited, and made a good place of escape during the various lockdowns of 2020 and early 2021. I decided I would visit every month to take notes and photos, to record the seasonal changes in the plants and the surrounding countryside (coming soon, in a separate blog-post). Limestone country has its own very special flora which, on the pavements, find shelter, dampness and stability within the channels of the grikes (see the blog-post about the plants of Great Asby). At Clints the pale-green, shiny fronds of Hart’s Tongue Ferns are immediately obvious, even in the winter; and the dissected red-tinted leaves and small pink flowers of Herb Robert can be found year-round.

But it is the moss, coating large areas of these clints, that is unusual. In early May 2020 the pavement was an astonishing sight: beneath the still-leafless trees there was a pattern of khaki rectangles accentuated by a grid of the lush, bright green of Dog’s Mercury. The regularity was unnatural on this landscape scale.Within a fortnight the Dog’s Mercury had been joined by the shiny lanceolate leaves of Wild Garlic (delicious in soup) and the white star-bursts of their flower-heads. Trees came into in leaf, then produced their seeds or berries, before being blasted bare in the autumnal gales. Low scrubby blackthorn bushes within a grike were laden with the blue-black berries of sloes.

In August I failed to take photos because the field that I needed to cross was busy with frisky stirkies, who were watching me, jostling each other with tails raised. I retreated and climbed a gate to attempt to slink by on the far side of a wall, but when I retrieved my rucksack from the ground where I had thrown it I stood up and saw that I was being watched by a mountainous brown bull. He was lying down, he looked benign – but I was on his territory and I knew I could not outrun him, so I said ‘good morning’, and left. In the winter, frost, then snow, made the pavement treacherous underfoot.

Red bull, watching

It requires patient searching to find fossil invertebrate animals at Clints. Scattered brachiopods occasionally form hollows on the clints, their concave shells crackly with hard dry moss in the summer. There are colonies of corals here and there in the walls, and sometimes the sections of crinoid stems. For whatever reason, it seems the former sea-bed was not as rich as that at Little Asby (see ‘Death assemblages’).

Yet the scenery around this small pavement at Clints Crags offers hints about the limestone, and how we have used it. There is the typical karst landscape of rolling hills, low scarps, and sinkholes; there is the pavement itself, with its special flora, and its different layers and shapes indicative of different environmental conditions during their deposition and erosion; and there are the ‘erratics’, reminding us that glaciers passed this way. And then there are the drystone walls, the variations in their stones and construction reliant on the stones that the builders found to hand. One of the tracks to the Crags leads past a series of former quarries, and a few miles distant the workings of the still-busy Moota quarry are visible, where the rock is blasted and crushed for road-stone. A small, abandoned lime kiln, its arched opening like an eyebrow, stares from a nearby field, and at certain times of the year piles of quicklime for agricultural use are mounded on the floor of a decrepit shed at the start of the quarry track.

In the rubbly centre of a broken drystone wall I found the stem and part of a bowl of a small clay pipe: this too is why I keep returning, looking for further clues to the human alterations of the landscape.

Remains of a clay pipe

1. Peter Wilson (2010) Lake District mountain landforms. Scotforth Books

2. Norman Nicholson (1954)  The Seven Rocks, in The Pot Geranium; Collected Poems ed. Neil Curry 1994, Faber & Faber

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